Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How World War II Became the Mushroom Kingdom

Last week was Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and while there are a number of things I could write about, I feel like other writers out there have covered the major announcements quite thoroughly. Instead, I'd like to focus on something that probably no one else noticed.

In the Career Pavilion, Activision had a huge booth set up with Guitar Hero: World Tour front and center on a big stage, so anyone could show off their chops in front of the rest of the attendees. But meanwhile, tucked off to the side they had an Xbox 360 set up with the latest Call of Duty game, subtitled World at War, which is set during World War II. In case anyone isn't familiar, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter that focuses on intense realism.

I played the game on two different occasions, and each time was a different scenario. In the first scenario, I was a Russian soldier fighting the Third Reich in a gritty urban setting in Eastern Europe. In the other, I was an U.S. soldier fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific theater.

What struck me most is how they designed the game to make fighting Germans and Japanese to feel like two distinct scenarios. Fighting the German army involved sneaking through bombed-out buildings and sewers, so I had to be sneaky. By contrast, the fight against the Japanese army took place outdoors, and felt more like a siege. My squad was attempting to take control of a strategic position, so the emphasis was on pushing forward as quick as possible.

Enemy tactics were also varied in the two scenarios, the biggest difference being that the Japanese army had banzai soldiers who would rush straight at you with their bayonets. If you don't kill them before they reach you, or press the melee attack button at just the right time to counter-attack, then you get stabbed and killed.

Now, from a purely design-oriented standpoint, all of this is great. Fighting Germany should feel different from fighting Japan. And the game is fun to play. It has just the right mix of action and challenge to be addictive without being frustrating.

However, the problem I had with the game was this: being about World War II, the events of this game are based on real people, who really lived and died. Many of us probably have living relatives who fought in WW2. What Activision has done is essentially to take those real-life armies and reduced them to green-shelled and red-shelled koopas.

While I was playing, I couldn't shake the feeling in the back of my mind that taking this intense real-life conflict and applying all the familiar tropes of a videogame to it somehow cheapened the reality that it was based on. How would a veteran like to know that all the training and battle experience he went through became reduced to, "Press the melee button when the Banzai soldier gets close"?

But I don't want to sound like I'm knocking the game itself. The game was fun as hell. I just felt like taking a worldwide conflict and slicing it up into "levels" that have their own "enemies" was a weird treatment of the event. Then again, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a better way that they could've done it. I don't know if there's a way to capture both the urge to kill Nazis with a sense of respect for those who lived and died during the conflict, or if fostering a sense of respect is something the game should try to accomplish in the first place.

But maybe this doesn't even matter in the long run. The game is fun to play, pure and simple. So should one even consider if the events of the past have been cheapened through recreation? I'll leave it for the game designers to decide for themselves.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Explaining the unexplainable

I was recently re-reading Chuck Klosterman's article, "The Lester Bangs of Video Games," and although the entire piece is brilliant, I think the single most important sentence in the piece is this one:
As far as I can tell, there is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like, nor is anyone analyzing what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself.
My first reaction to this quote was, "But I do know what playing games feels like." However, as far as I know no critic, myself included, effectively communicates this in their pieces. Let me show you what I mean.

Here's a clip of two people playing a match of Super Smash Bros. Melee. Watch the whole thing if you like, but the part most relevant to what I'm going to talk about begins at 1:05.

If you're a regular Smash Bros. player, your reaction to the video will likely be vastly different from someone who has never played before or played only a little bit. If you're a regular player, you know why Marth falling through the level -- twice -- is out of the ordinary. You might even find it funny, as I sure did.

Now, try to communicate that to someone who has never played before. Before you can explain why it's funny, you would have to explain the basics of the game, how recovery works, who the characters are, what the stage is, and so on. You have to explain a lot. And after you've explained all that, the non-player still probably won't find the clip funny. We all know the old adage about how a joke isn't funny if you have to explain it.

And so we've reached the dilemma. As someone who's familiar with Smash Bros., I know what it feels like to experience something like what happens in that clip. I know how intense a well-played Smash Bros. match feels. I know the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and how hilarious it is when something completely unexpected happens, such as in the above clip. In fact, I'd argue that the random unexpected occurrences are what make Smash Bros. so great.

But if you're writing to someone who's never played the game before, how the hell are you supposed to communicate all of that effectively? Unless your audience is already familiar with at least some vital aspects of the game, I don't see how it's possible.

Fortunately, I think this will become easier as games become a more indelible part of popular culture. As more people play games, the more familiar they become with genres, tropes and common features. Most people already know who Mario is, and he appears in Super Smash Bros. Melee, so you wouldn't have to explain who he is if you were writing about that game. My hope is that, over time, you won't have to explain things like "platform" or "recovery" either, because they will be as identifiable as Mario.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shameless plugging

I'm finally throwing my hat back into the ring. You can read my first review for GamersInfo.net here. Therein I talk about at least one of the following things: Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, the unbearable lightness of being, and why Gustave Flaubert is an overrated hack.

Oh, but I'm not done yet. If, like me, you have a love/hate relationship with the Sci Fi Channel, you'll want to scope my writeup of their new reality show "WCG Ultimate Gamer" over at GetYourTournament.com. Hey, games are science-fiction, right?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

About the author

The following is my contribution to Man Bytes Blog's March '09 Blogs of the Roundtable discussion.

In a film class I took at Loyola Marymount, the professor once talked about the concept of "auteur theory" -- the idea that the director is the primary storyteller, and that the film reflects the director's individual creative vision. Now, not every director is an auteur, and not every film reflects one person's creative vision, but many of the best films satisfy both these criteria.

The example given in class was this: Finding Nemo earned over $300 million at the U.S. box office. Now, ask the average person (or even the average film student) who directed it, and they're not very likely to know (it's Andrew Stanton). Compare this to a film like Reservoir Dogs. Most film students can readily identify the director as Quentin Tarantino, but Reservoir Dogs only made a few million at the box office. I'm not arguing that Dogs is necessarily a better film than Nemo; rather, Tarantino put more of a signature style into his work, and thus he became closely associated with that style.

There are plenty of other film auteurs out there. Just think about the natural prejudices you might have toward a film before seeing it, if the only thing you know about it is the director. You know to expect lots of explosions and CGI in any Michael Bay film. Stanley Kubrick's films frequently have deliberately-paced dialogue and classical music in the score. Hell, even Uwe Boll has become known for having horrendous acting and lots of gratuitous violence and nudity.

It's equally important for videogames to develop their own auteurs in the same way the film industry has. I've only played a handful of games in which a game designer's "voice" can be heard in the same way a film director's voice could be heard. Probably the most distinct auteur I've become familiar with is Hideo Kojima through his Metal Gear Solid series. (Disclaimer: I've not played Metal Gear Solid 4.) When you compare the games to each other, a clear set of common characteristics can be found.

Each game starts off with basically the same premise: the player takes control of secret agent Snake as he sneaks past guards, infiltrates deep into enemy territory, and eventually faces off with a megalomaniacal enemy hellbent on world destruction. But this isn't what makes Kojima an auteur. Instead, it's the unique way in which Kojima takes this basic premise (which is common to many, many games) and uses it to tell stories that are unmistakably his own.

Taken as a whole, the Metal Gear Solid series is Kojima's critique of the poltics of war. The titular "Metal Gear" of the series is a tank capable of firing a nuclear missile, and it's up to Snake to stop the antagonist from utilizing it. Yet Snake is constantly second-guessing his superiors, allies are crossed and double-crossed, and oftentimes it's hard for Snake (and thus the player) to know if he's really doing the right thing.

To illustrate further, I'd like to take a deeper look at Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Spoiler alert!). Set during the Cold War, Snake infiltrates a Russian jungle to stop the mad Colonel Volgin from holding the Soviet Union hostage. Along the way, he encounters The Boss, his mentor, who has defected to Volgin's side. Over the course of the game, we learn that the CIA had planned for The Boss to defect in the first place, so that they could later send in Snake to defeat her and become a national hero. By defecting to the enemy and allowing herself to be killed by Snake, The Boss was in fact fulfilling her own duty to her country. (End spoilers.)

This kind of dramatic reveal is typical to the Metal Gear Solid series, and it's a good way to know that you're playing a game by Kojima. By completely surprising players and going against their expectations, Kojima not only makes memorable gaming experiences but communicates the main theme of the MGS series: that in wartime, you can never really know who your allies are.

Of course, MGS games also have a lot of smaller quirks that make them unique. Kojima always sprinkles his games with Easter eggs, references to old movies (including lots of James Bond references), and meta-humor that involves breaking the fourth wall. Perhaps the most notorious example of this happens late in Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty, where the game gives you non-sequiter messages and tells you to turn the game off. At first, it's easy to take these quirks as Kojima just being weird for the sake of it, but I think they each contribute to the central theme of the game in their own way.

Corvus Elrod asks, "[S]hould video game designers try to remain out of their work, allowing the player to establish their own themes through gameplay?" I think the answer must be taken on a game-by-game basis. In the case of MGS, I think the games are absolutely strengthened by having Kojima weave the player through a story of his own design. But of course it's important to also have games that gives players their own degree of auteurship.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that, while containing its own story, lets the player decide how that story gets told. I heard from some players that empathized so much with the main character, Niko Bellic, that they refrained from killing or hurting random pedestrians. They wanted Niko to remain a sympathetic character, so they purposefully refrained from the typical mayhem that GTA is known for. Of course, the option to wreak havoc while also advancing the story is still an option. Metal Gear Solid 3, likewise, gives the player the option of killing as few soldiers as possible.

The games I've played that take the player mostly out of the driver's seat would have to be RPGs. Xenogears is the most egregious example I've come across. There are a plethora of instances in the game where the player can do nothing but tap the X button to continue through dialogue and cut scenes before getting back to the action. Yet, Xenogears has a great story, one of the most epic of any game. My issue with Xenogears is not with the story, but how the game chooses to tell it. When I played it, I wanted to feel more like a player and less like a reader.

The uniqueness of auteurship in games is that they can engender players to be authors themselves. The best stories in games are the ones that allow the player to feel like the agent of change while nonetheless acting out the type of story that the designer intended. It's a hard balance to achieve, but I think games like Metal Gear Solid 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV are the closest that games have come to striking that balance.